I founded the Institute for Chronic Pain for a number of reasons, but one of them continues to this day. Indeed, I am reminded of it most everyday.
The reason is others and mine persistent frustration over what seems like an almost endless delivery of ineffective healthcare within the field of chronic pain management. At the time of the Institute’s formation, in late 2012, the previous decade had seen an exponential increase in the delivery of procedures and therapies for chronic pain, most notably, spinal injections, spinal surgeries, and the long-term use of opioids. The use of these procedures and therapies had far surpassed the field’s traditional and empirically-supported treatment – the interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation program, which had been the mainstay of treatment for twenty or thirty years by the end of the last century. For all those previous years, patients had benefited from such programs and with each decade the field had published more studies and meta-analyses demonstrating their effectiveness. In the mid-1990’s to the early 2000’s, the field began to change and change rapidly. The use of spinal injections, spinal surgeries, and opioid medications became prolific, far exceeding the use of interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation programs. As a result, interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation programs began to close their doors in great numbers for lack of patients.
One might consider such a sea change within the field of chronic pain management a natural progression of the field: due to scientific advances and discoveries, one set of therapies came to predominate over an older form of therapy. However, it wouldn’t be accurate.
The older form of therapy, interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation programs, remained (and still remains today) the more empirically-supported treatment. In other words, such programs remain the more effective treatment and yet, as a field, we routinely deliver care that is not as effective as we could deliver – we routinely provide spinal injections, surgeries and opioid medications to patients with chronic pain, and tend to forego recommending the more effective option of interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation programs. While recognition of this problem is growing and gaining momentum, this state of affairs continues to this day.
Typical responses by the healthcare system: empirical-based healthcare
Many in the field, who recognize this problem, attempt to resolve it by focusing on changing the practice patterns of providers – encouraging them to recommend less orthopedic-related care, such as spinal injections, spinal surgeries, and opioid medications, and instead recommend more nervous system-related care, such as interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation.
Specifically, leaders in the field attempt to educate and persuade healthcare providers to make recommendations based on what the available scientific research tells us is most effective. This ideal for guiding the practice of healthcare is called ‘empirically-based healthcare.’ The word ‘empirical’ in this context means scientific and phrases such as ‘empirically-based’ or ‘empirically-supported’ when used in the context of treatments means that the scientific evidence supports the effectiveness of the given treatment.
This goal to have the scientific evidence for or against treatments guide our recommendations is important. It should lead the field to make more recommendations for those treatments that science tells us are effective and lead us to make less recommendations for treatments that have been shown to be less effective. Indeed, who wouldn’t argue that we should be focusing our care and resources on treatments that are the most effective?
Health insurance companies and professional provider organizations
Typically, health insurance companies or different types of provider organizations lead the drive to change provider practice patterns within the field of chronic pain management. Insurance companies periodically institute policy changes that encourage the use of empirically-supported treatments and various professional organizations develop guidelines for what constitutes appropriate care for different chronic pain conditions. In my geographical area, for instance, local insurance companies have twice attempted to mandate that patients receive non-surgical second opinions, such as psychological evaluations for rehabilitation care, before obtaining spine surgery. I personally have also served on two different guideline development committees for the management of back pain.
While admirable, these attempts never succeed in producing a significant change in the practice patterns of healthcare providers. They fight a steep uphill battle. Many of the forces for maintaining the status quo of providing ineffective healthcare on a widespread basis remain powerful and complicated. They are difficult to resolve. We discuss many of these problems in the new content page of our website.
Despite these problems, the actions of insurance companies and professional organizations are necessary. For after all, providers are an important part of the healthcare equation. They are the ones who make the recommendations and deliver the care. It’s obviously important therefore that they become convinced to recommend care that science has shown to be most effective.
While necessary, a sole focus on changing provider practice patterns is not sufficient to bring about widespread change in the field. Such a focus leaves out the role of patients who, in large measure, have a say in the care they receive. Any change to the field of chronic pain management must also focus on changing societal beliefs about chronic pain and how to best treat it.
The role of the Institute for Chronic Pain
To meet this need, we developed the Institute for Chronic Pain. While insurance companies and professional organizations play a necessary role in attempting to change the ‘supply’ side of care (i.e., what tends to get recommended by healthcare providers), the Institute for Chronic Pain focuses on changing the ‘demand’ side of care (i.e., what patients and their families expect and want when seeking chronic pain management).
Why is the latter important?
Through much of my career I have worked within interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation programs. I have evaluated countless patients for such programs and a common experience upon evaluation and subsequent recommendation of the treatment is that patients refuse it.
Now there often are many reasons why people can’t or won’t pursue such a recommendation, but a common one is that the recommendation to participate in an interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation program simply doesn’t make sense to them. It’s understandable given our societal belief systems about the nature of chronic pain. Many in our society understand chronic pain as something that is the result of a long-lasting orthopedic injury and as such they think that the most effective approach is to pursue orthopedic-related interventions, such as injections or surgery, that treat the spine or other joint that is the site of pain. As a result, given these societal beliefs, patients can come to refuse to participate in an interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation program, in favor of seeking less effective orthopedic-related care – spinal injections, spinal surgery, and use of opioid pain medications.
To this problem, we have been actively attempting to produce content that explains how chronic pain is typically a nervous system-related condition, not an orthopedic condition, and so therefore should be mostly treated through interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation. We have reviewed how the field is in the process of a paradigm shift, a change in how experts in the field understands the nature of chronic pain and what the field considers to be the most effective treatments for it. We have reviewed the contrasting ways of understanding chronic pain and have reviewed how basic science indicates that chronic pain is the result of a nervous system condition called central sensitization. We have reviewed and clarified the relationships between chronic pain and a number of the most common complicating conditions, such as anxiety, depression, trauma, insomnia, fear-avoidance, and catastrophizing; in so doing, we have explained that these conditions commonly complicate the course of chronic pain because they too are nervous system-related conditions. We have reviewed how interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation focuses on reducing central sensitization and thereby such programs reduce the typical cause of pain and suffering. On our social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, among others, we post (on an almost daily basis) news reports on published studies of the relationship between chronic pain and the nervous system, particularly the brain. In all, the Institute for Chronic Pain devotes much of its resources to changing our societal beliefs about the nature of chronic pain and how best to treat it. Our aim is to bring our common societal understandings into line with the consistent findings of the basic and applied science of pain.
In short, as our mission states, we aim to change the culture of how chronic pain is managed.
In response to these efforts to change our societal understanding of the nature of chronic pain, there remains a common reaction to which we, as the Institute for Chronic Pain, have not yet responded, at least not until now. Within the public at large, but also within the clinic when reviewing the above information with individual patients, there remains doubt that orthopedic-related care, such as spinal injections, surgeries and use of opioids, are less effective than interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation. The doubt continues due to the following reason: people don’t believe it simply because orthopedic-related therapies are so much more commonly performed than interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation therapies. If what we say is true – that science tells us that orthopedic-related therapies are less effective, then it would mean that the field of chronic pain management has gotten it absurdly wrong. But this conclusion, for many, seems too hard to believe. In other words, the difference between how many in the field actually practice and how science informs us that we should practice seems too incongruous to be believable.
Understandably, then, the question thus remains: ‘How could the healthcare system have gotten it so wrong? These therapies (spinal injections, spine surgeries, opioid medications) just simply have to be the most effective treatments or healthcare providers wouldn’t recommend them as often as they do.’
To this question, we put together and published the new webpage, entitled: Why Healthcare Providers Deliver Ineffective Care.
Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD
Date of last modification: 1-20-2015